Art Pact 182 - Galley

The rough touch of the whip brushed my back again, turning the raw welts into strips of pure fire. I did what I'd learnt to do - I mugged at putting extra effort into hauling at the oar-beam, curving my back out and sticking on an expression of ragged determination as though I were about to pop a blood vessel (which, I had to admit, might not be terribly far from the truth).

My colleagues (my own little ironic name for the other slaves, a pathetic attempt at galley-humour, ha-ha), bronzed and black and various shades in between, appeared to have a similar attitude, for I never felt the weight of the stroke lessen when they themselves were encouraged in this manner. I began to suspect that there was not so much difference between me and them in this respect - that my office-life in the twenty-first century and their life of hard physical labour in the first had engendered in us the same attitude towards the demands of our superiors, namely that it was better, when a supervisor was watching, to appear to work than to actually expend any of your strength (mental or physical) on a short-term increase in productivity that would ultimately go unrewarded. As the month had progressed (measured partly by count, and partly by the phases of the moon, since the days were so repetitive that I did not entirely trust my ability to keep track), I had come to think of them less as alien and frightening creatures and more as humans just like me. It seemed almost to me now, at the end of August, that given access to shaving equipment and a shower, any of the other slaves could easily be dressed in a business suit and walk into a programming job without the slightest blink of an eye. Obviously there might be something of a language barrier, and I suspected that their object-oriented skills might be lacking somewhat, but those were minor things. I suppose that reading this it seems obvious to you that this should be the way of things, since of course humans have not changed so much in the last two millennia, but when I thought back to the woeful time of my arrival and the terror which had attended my interactions with the others at that point, it seemed like a marvel to me to finally accept that we were all the same except for the changes in behaviour that culture and learning had wrought in us.

Another positive change I had experienced was the waxing of my muscles - or perhaps more accurately, their acclimatization to hard work. I did not think that the thin gruel we were fed was enough to promote any real sort of muscle growth, but the relentless action had at least hardened the muscles, squeezing the water fatness out of my arms and back and legs until the sinews stood out when I pulled. I had developed something of a six-pack as well, although I was in no position to appreciate it, and indeed I would have welcomed the comfortable layer of fat that had hidden it in the past. My body seemed to be running on a just-in-time system, so that I would be reaching the limits of exhaustion when we stopped for food, and any delay in our captain's decision to haul oars for a meal was an agonizing torture at the core of me, in a way far worse than the whipping coming from outside. That my system did not degenerate entirely into a skeleton I could owe only to the rare portions of fish that we seemed to be trawling with small nets from the back of the ship. I rarely saw the nets go out, but I often felt the tell-tale tug of extra weight being pulled along, and I knew that in a few hours time I would be allocated a whole fish - usually a fairly small one, admittedly, a silvery fish intermediate in size between a pilchard and a cod that I was unable to identify either by its appearance or taste. The nets were rarely out for long, and neither were they large (I had seen them once carried from the aft to the prow of the boat where they were taken for repairs), so the whole process hinted at an amazing excess of fish in the waters around us. Indeed, at night I often heard an unusual slapping sound at the side of the boat which the other slaves, by means of gestures, indicated were fish - flying fish I assumed - jumping up and hitting the hull. I remembered reading once that in the sixteenth century someone had described the sea off the Irish coast as so dense with fish that one could walk from there to America. At the time I had not been able to imagine the richness of animals that might have sparked such hyperbole, but now it seemed perfectly natural - that the description fell between two posts. Just as I, a modern man with access to accurate maps, to Google Earth and to planes, could understand that the Atlantic was large in a way that the older man could not comprehend, so he was gifted with the sight of a shoal of fish dense in the waters, a sight that the impoverished seas of my time could not supply without years of expertise or months of searching.

I began to succumb, of course, to various deficiencies - or, at least, to various fears of deficiencies, since there was no way I could determine for certain whether I was actually suffering from a disease or just imagining it into existence through a lack of knowledge. My skin began to dry terrible, my teeth ached in my gums, and I was certain that when I touched them together I could feel them move slightly in their sockets. Whether it was calcium, or scurvy, or perhaps some exotic virus that did not exist in my time I could not be sure, but I worried about it at every opportunity I got, reducing my already scant sleep.


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